When you think air pollution, you probably think smokestacks in remote countries—not the furniture in your office, right? Well, get this: Thirty Boston office workers in buildings that were new, recently renovated, or had no recent construction, had perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs—toxic chemicals applied to carpets and furniture to repel stains and dirt—in their blood samples, a recent study finds.
Workers who spent their time in new buildings showed the highest levels of the chemicals, and each added hour in the office was associated with a two percent increase in the amount of PFCs in the blood.
Should you be worried?
"We don't know for sure that being exposed to these chemicals at these concentrations causes health problems, but there is evidence that it might," says lead study researcher Tom Webster, ScD. PFCs are used in more ways than just as a stain- and dirt-repellent in office furniture. They're also used to manufacture nonstick cookware, and fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and even butter wrappers are impregnated with them to keep grease from permeating the packaging. Past studies have linked high levels of the chemicals to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and to infertility, thyroid problems, and high cholesterol in adults. Not only that, but PFCs applied to furniture emit the carcinogen formaldehyde as they break down. "These studies are not definitive, but they are concerning," Webster adds.
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The office environment has really slipped through the cracks in terms of regulations, says Gina M. Solomon, MD, MPH, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There aren't any laws or inspections regulating indoor air quality except in very industrial environments," she says. You also probably don't have much control over your office furniture, the carpeting, or much of anything else in your office. So here are some tips to keep yourself healthy and your office as unpolluted as possible.